Service provider or trade union?
April 7 saw the beginning of a rather unusual three-day annual conference of the National Union of Students in the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. Around 800 delegates attended to debate policy and elect the leadership for the next year. The NUS is now in a state of crisis. Currently it owes over £1.5 million, and projections indicate that this figure is likely to rise in the next 12 months due to spiralling costs. Of course, cutbacks have therefore been the name of the game, and this has given rightward-leaning elements within the executive plenty of opportunity to present cuts in democracy and accountability as the only viable course of action if the NUS is to survive. At the spearhead of this drive has been NUS president Kat Fletcher. Once a supporter of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, she was elected last year on a left ticket, standing in opposition to a 30-year legacy of corruption under previous Labour Students-dominated leaderships and for a militant, campaigning union. Kat Fletcher: turncoat Her endorsement of Labour NEC members' plans for cuts in representation and democracy spending, and the abject failure of this year's demonstration against top-up fees in Cardiff, which attracted little over 2,000 students, has meant that we have seen little of the militant, socialist Kat who addressed past conferences. Having cut her ties with the AWL and the Campaign for Free Education, Fletcher now sadly appears to be aligned with a number of meandering independents and Labour Students within the NEC. This did not prevent her from being re-elected to the post by a 200-vote margin, however - possibly as a result of her attempt to present herself as the NUS saviour and a number of key factional endorsements: Labour Students did not stand a candidate for the presidency, for instance. This year's conference was considerably smaller than previous ones, due to cuts in delegation sizes and the conference budget. In addition to its downsizing, conference was also rumoured to be made up of almost 50% first-time delegates, with many of them apolitical and/or inexperienced in the factional wrangling within the union. The result was that conference lacked any clear political coherence. The biggest issue was closely linked to that of finance, and involved a debate on whether the union should introduce an optional NUS card to students which would offer a wider range of discounts and services, but only to those who paid the extra for the card. This proposal was rejected outright by the left as the harbinger of a 'two-tier' membership structure, but was passed by a large margin on conference floor, after being presented by the leadership as part of its 'there is no alternative' scenario. Of course, if this had been presented to the membership last year, the cuts in delegation sizes and student representation may not have been necessary. With the NUS card motion out of the way, conference went on to debate other policy matters, which were broadly grouped under the themes of 'strong and active unions', 'welfare', 'education' and 'society and citizenship'. What ensued was a rather unusual affair, with a range of unexpected anomalies. A sizeable number of progressive items of policy were either rejected by conference altogether or just scraped through. A motion calling for the NUS to launch a campaign alongside the GMB union for a minimum living wage of around £8 an hour was rejected by a large margin, and policy on abortion rights narrowly passed after a heated debate - both areas of policy which would have been almost entirely uncontroversial in previous years. Conference also voted down policy against faith schools and rejected holding a demonstration on broad student issues for the first term of next academic year. The result of many debates appeared to boil down to which side of the argument could give the most passionate speech, with the organised factions representing a much smaller percentage of conference's make-up than has traditionally been the case. This stems from an apparent rejection of organised political intervention by a large proportion of students, who view political affiliation and collectivism as inherently corrupt and unatttractive. The only factional elements which have grown have been those based around faith or single-issue campaigning, such as the Federation of Societies for Islamic Students (FOSIS). Although the politicisation of a broad swathe of muslim students by the Iraq war and the government's draconian approach to asylum has been positive, in the sense that it allows the left to propagandise amongst them and attempt to win them to socialist politics, this opportunity has not been seized by the largest groups on the student left. Just as in Respect, the Socialist Workers Party seems to prefer to remain silent on areas of disagreement, or even tail reactionary approaches to class questions espoused by their new-found bedfellows. Perhaps the most disgusting and indicative example of this was the sour and hostile reception given to Iraqi trade unionist and women's rights activist Houzan Mahmood, a comrade from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq who was speaking on behalf of the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq, an invited guest. Following a hysterical display by delegates from the FOSIS, who denounced her before her arrival as an 'unveiler of muslim women' and an islamophobe, conference seemed blind to her record as an activist and democrat and came close to rejecting her completely. FOSIS delegates slow-handclapped and then walked out when she began to criticise the islamist resistance. Depressingly, they were soon followed by the SWP. The tailing of the FOSIS line on this issue is undoubtedly another worrying indication of SWP readiness to place reactionary politics above their own in an attempt to reach out to the 'muslim community'. The once staunch socialist and ex-NUS women's officer, Kat Fletcher, was silent amidst this sorry episode. There is a clear danger that the NUS will break altogether with its tradition over the last four decades as a fighting body that views itself broadly as a trade union for students that has often been aligned to the wider union movement. The leadership has more recently seen the negotiation of commercial services as a better means of engaging with its membership than political agitation - except for low-key campaigning around broadly acceptable and uncontroversial issues. It sometimes seems that schemes to attract income or cut costs can now attract more passion than the big political questions. James Bull